“Cheever: A Life” By Blake Bailey
Reviewed By Bret Anthony Johnston
New York Times
Blake Bailey’s “Cheever: A Life” opens with a reference to the time John Cheever emerged, presumably drunk and definitely naked, from his Boston apartment. It was seven years before his death, a winter evening when he was to accompany John Updike to the symphony. His books were out of print, his marriage on the verge of collapse and his ambiguous sexual orientation a daily torment. He had taken to walking the streets and drinking with bums. Upon discovering Cheever in this compromised state, Updike, as he described it, “primly concentrated on wedging him into his clothes.” Afterward they went to Symphony Hall as if nothing unusual had occurred. Essentially, nothing had.
Bringing the lives of writers’ writers to the reading public is Mr. Bailey’s specialty. In “A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates” (2003) he delivered a sensitive and powerful portrait of the vastly underappreciated author of “The Easter Parade” and “Revolutionary Road.” Following Yates with Cheever makes sense. Both men waged desperate, lifelong battles with alcoholism, and Cheever, like Yates, spent his career attacking the hypocrisy of suburban life in keenly observed, downhearted narratives. Ultimately, though, their career trajectories diverged. After publishing three story collections and the novels “The Wapshot Chronicle” and “The Wapshot Scandal,” Cheever was hailed as “Ovid in Ossining” by Time magazine in a 1964 cover story — he also made the cover of Newsweek in 1977 with the release of his novel “Falconer” — while Yates remained a critical darling ignored by readers.
Yates never had a story in The New Yorker, whereas Cheever published a staggering 121 stories there. Most of those stories, Mr. Bailey writes, were born of autobiography or notes recorded in Cheever’s journal, a voluminous daily accounting maintained, Cheever said, as “a means of refreshing my memory.” (Only a fraction of the journal — 4,300 typed, single-space pages — has been published, but Mr. Bailey had total access.)
Cheever wrote conventional and experimental stories alike, though in fiction, as in life, he was obsessed with the dark secrets of the middle class. In “The Enormous Radio,” one of his masterpieces, a married couple find that their new radio inexplicably allows them to eavesdrop on their neighbors. The Westcotts “overheard demonstrations of indigestion, carnal love, abysmal vanity, faith, and despair.”